Andrew Ponec is the co-founder and CEO of Dragonfly Systems, a solar technology company spun out from Stanford’s electrical engineering department. Dragonfly Systems develops small electronics devices that improve efficiency and reduce installation costs for large commercial and utility-scale solar power installations. In 2014, Dragonfly Systems was acquired by SunPower Corporation, a US-based solar company with the world’s most efficient commercial solar cells. Andrew was also named in Forbes’ 2014 “30 under 30” list for his work in solar energy, and is currently focusing on building efficient energy use and affordable housing technologies. In this Q&A, we dive into Andrew’s background and the circumstances that enabled him to launch a startup at 19, sell it at 20 and continue to make progress thereafter:
Starting a company while in college
Q: What made you start the company at the age of 19?
A: Well, it was not part of the plan. While at Stanford and doing research, we stumbled upon a technology. We didn’t want the technology to die as it had so many benefits for people, so we started the company.
Q: Tell us something about how you overcame some of the pressures of being at Stanford, getting good grades, jobs, etc.? Was starting a company a big risk?
A: Yes it was a risk. But I had the wonderful support of my family, friends and colleagues. Initially parents were not thrilled, however, I found a wonderful colleague in Daniel who said he will do it if I do it. One has to learn to be tolerant of risks. Our drive came from the fact that we just didn’t want the technology to go waste. I have been fortunate in life to have had such a wonderful support structure around me.
Q: What was your elevator pitch?
A: Interesting you asked that. Our first funding actually came from a pitch that I literally gave in an elevator. Pitch simply was – we have the technology to improve efficiency and reduce installation costs for large solar power installations.
Q: What kept you going?
A: Well, we had a good balance of skills in our team from electrical engineering to computer science. I firmly believe in “finding the best person and do whatever it takes to get him.” If you believe in a person, then go for it. At the time, we hired Ben, who was a TA at Stanford.
At that time, solar space was not doing good; Solyndra went bankrupt, Sun Power was not doing good. However, we knew that in solar space, extracting higher voltage is better, and we knew and had the technology to do it, while maintaining safety.
We believed in us, our team and technology because a “good Idea is a good Idea.”
Q: How do you keep your team motivated?
A: That is the advantage of startups: getting along, working together and having the same values takes cares of a lot of things. People are intrinsically motivated. Fortunately, age never became an issue for us; in fact, it was a little bit of an advantage.
Q: Any advice for Students?
A: Don’t do it alone. Share experiences, share ideas. Work with people whom you can trust.
Go for it. Don’t get into the expectation of finer paths in life. Think, “if it fails tomorrow, was I happy working on it today?” If answer is “no,” then something is wrong. There will always be self-doubt, but it was not a problem for me as the team I was working with was the best.
Q: Your company got acquired in 18 months. What did you do well to make this possible?
A: Hiring the right team was the most important thing. Initially, our idea was not working out and we didn’t get too much traction. One critical moment came where we had to decide whether to continue on. At that moment, the team decided to continue on. That is why I strongly feel that having the right team is critical. The team is where the value of the company is, not the IP.
We got lots of help by sharing our ideas instead of protecting information. We asked for help too; we were not shy in asking for help. We got lots of help in terms of preparing the term sheets and legal advice. People are really generous in Silicon Valley; that’s where we found most of the people in our network.
Advice: Treat others with respect, be clear, honest and transparent when asking for help.
Q: Did you always plan to sell the company as an exit strategy?
A: We didn’t start the company with the thought that we will get acquired. But as time went on, it made sense to be acquired. SunPower started as a customer but after deep integration with them, they acquired us.
Getting brave after acquisition
Q: What is different in the Andrew before and after Dragonfly?
A: Hopefully not too much. I still have the mindset that I’m “just starting out.” At Dragonfly, we had a small idea that I could get my head and arms around. Now, I’m tackling and thinking bigger-scope things.
Q: So do you have new ideas to work with?
A: Well, yes I had a lot of new ideas. I read a lot about different fields but then, I stopped and dived a little deeper into some of the ideas.
Takeaway: Allow yourself time, don’t let ideas die. At first, think and focus only on the idea; don’t get dragged down by the execution of the idea.
As a result of this exercise over the last year, I have now narrowed my ideas down to two and am seriously going deeper into them:
Sustainable Housing – The idea is to build a housing core with Electrical and HVAC in place. Once we have that, then we can have economies of scale and survive damages in shipping while maintaining customizability.
Personal Electric Aviation – Vertical takeoff and landing aircraft is tricky. Motors are lightweight and can help tremendously in electric propulsion.
Q: What are the things you wouldn’t do now if you start a new company?
A: I didn’t do a good job or was not focused on recruitment at Dragonfly. This is one thing I will do – I will focus more on recruiting. Founders set the culture and who you hire determines the company’s long term success. Communication is key, so I will also focus more on open communication. Another thing I’ll remember is to not be afraid of big companies; sometimes knowing too much about a domain can hurt you as it puts you inside the box and you don’t think out of the box.
Overall, focus on hiring anyone who is better than you. It will lead to respect automatically.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I play cello, love gardening and enjoy winter sports.